Did you know that more people complain about headaches than any other type of ailment? There are approximately 45 million Americans suffering from chronic headaches each year, or about one in every six people, according to IHateHeadaches.org, and some of your choice painkillers may actually be triggering MORE headaches (these are known as “rebound headaches”, but we’ll get to those later).
This month, June, is National Headache Awareness Month, and with headaches mild to severe running rampant across the country, it seems appropriate to look into the different types of headaches that are plaguing people and to explore some Chinese medicine treatments that can help.
The first thing to recognize: not all headaches are the same. Therefore, one treatment method may not be right for treating all types of headaches. There are five main types of headaches classified in Western medicine: Tension headaches, Cluster headaches, Sinus headaches, Rebound headaches, and Migraine headaches.
In traditional Chinese medicine, these classifications don’t exist as much, but instead each individual is diagnosed by what “channel” or “organ” pathology is being affected and thereby causing the headache, according to Dr. Greg Sperber, Pacific College of Oriental Medicine Director of Clinical Services. In TCM, a headache has two parts: the root and the branch. The root is whatever is causing the headache, and the branch is the pain itself. Chinese medicine works to treat both the root and the branch, so the result is more long-term, instead of just temporarily relieving the pain.
By integrating Western and Eastern thinking it’s possible to analyze the types of headaches you may be experiencing. However, if you want the best treatment tailored specifically for you, it is strongly recommended that you see an acupuncturist for a full diagnosis. With that said, there are some traits that tend to differentiate types of headaches, according to Health.com, and different treatments that work best for each.
- Tension headaches – These are the most common type of headache; a person will feel pain most likely at the temples or back of the head and neck. Over-the-counter treatments, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen are what most people use to treat them and these treatments are usually sufficient. However, if you’re looking for a more natural, chemical-free, treatment to rid yourself of a tension headache, try a pressure point called “Large Intestine 4,” Sperber said. This point is located between the thumb and forefinger and is pretty powerful. “Most people will feel the pain start to drain right away,” Sperber said. These treatments work well for the branch, or the pain, but do not work to treat the root of the problem.
The root of a tension headache is usually the neck being slightly out of alignment, which impinges the nerves and blood flow. The neck can get this way just from sleeping on poor pillows, Sperber said, “Your pillow needs to be thick enough to keep the head in the proper position.” Also, for all the belly sleepers out there, it’s impossible to keep your head in the proper position if you sleep this way, so try sleeping on your back or side.
- Cluster headaches – These headaches tend to affect more men than women and occur in groups or cycles. They come on suddenly and are characterized by severe, debilitating pain on one side of the head, and are often accompanied by a watery eye and nose on the same side of the face. In Chinese medicine, this severe pain is the result of a repletion or excess in the body and treatment involves “sedating the repletion,” Sperber said. This can be done with acupuncture, and herbs will most likely be prescribed to take at home, as an ongoing preventative treatment for the root of the problem.
- Sinus headaches – People who suffer from sinus headaches also suffer from sinus infections. The sinus infection leads to the headaches and oftentimes fever. Sinus headaches can be treated with antibiotics, antihistamines, or decongestants. A Chinese medicine treatment would involve using acupuncture locally around the nose and sinuses. The underlying root of sinus headaches usually resides in the spleen and lung, according to Sperber, so these channels would most likely need to be treated.
- Rebound headaches – As mentioned earlier, this type of recurring headache can, ironically, be spawned by the painkillers you are using to treat your current headache. They are usually caused by the overuse of painkillers (ex. aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or prescription drugs). If you use headache medications on a regular basis (more than a couple days a week), and notice an increased number of headaches as a result, it is recommended to stop taking your current pain medication. The reason for the headaches is that the body has developed a dependence on these medications; acupuncture treatment can help downsize these withdrawal symptoms.
- Migraine headaches – One of the most talked about types of headache, migraines can exhibit qualities including: pain lasting 4-72 hours, one sided pain, throbbing pain, moderate-to-severe pain, and pain that interferes with routine activity. Usually migraines are accompanied by nausea/vomiting, and/or sensitivity to light and sound. The root of migraines in Chinese medicine is many times blood qi deficiency, yin deficiency, or heat, but there could be other roots, so as mentioned earlier, the person affected by migraines should see an acupuncturist to be properly diagnosed and treated.
If you’re suffering from chronic headaches and would like to schedule a diagnosis appointment, contact the Pacific College Clinic. For more information on headaches and treatments, see the following articles: